Oh man, this week has been more eventful than I would've liked it to be, but one event in specific is worth sharing - I'm officially a Spanish minor! And in honor of that (+ a little fairytale that's blossomed in my mind and won't disappear), I'm throwing in a Spain-related travel post. I've been thinking a lot about Spain this past week.
I'm a strong proponent of immersing oneself in a culture, especially through food. My dad, on the other hand, enjoys the comfort of his Chinese food, which means that we butt heads when we travel (he ate Chinese food five times during our 8 day trip). I'm certainly not opposed to eating non-native cuisines when I'm travelling, but they have to be good - that's not too much to ask, is it?
Though I've written restaurant reviews in the past, this post is strictly a food diary/photojournal. There are some pretty great restaurants and markets that we didn't get to eat at, and we also had some bad meals here and there. I'm no Spaniard, and I don't want to offend anyone with my lack of cultural insight ;)
I'll indicate the names of the restaurants we went to and whether or not I'd recommend them, but if you're looking for the best places to eat in Spain/comprehensive reviews, I'm directing you to TripAdvisor (more reviews than anything you'll find on Yelp when you're looking for restaurants in Spain). If possible, talk to the locals (taxi drivers are the best people to strike a conversation with!) and get recommendations from them, too.
Quick word about Spanish cuisine before we begin - like all places, local cuisine differs from region to region based on the availability of ingredients. Before leaving, I did my best to research the types of foods we needed to try: tapas [including patatas bravas (potatoes with a slightly spicy, red sauce), tortilla Espanola (Spanish potato omelette), razor neck clams, albondigas (meatballs), pan con tomate (bread with tomato), fritas de bacalao (fried salt cod), gambas (prawns), croquetas (potato croquettes), calamares (calamari), Iberian ham, olives...], churros, bocadillos (sandwiches), paella, sangria (drinking age is 18, by the way, and I discovered that I do not enjoy the taste of alcohol ;)!)...
There is a lot of food to try, and to be frank, much of the traditional "must try" foods tend to be pretty heavy. We went to several grocery stores and the prices of fruits and vegetables is comparably high, which is to be expected given that most are imported into Spain (us Americans are quite lucky). The traditional cuisine isn't super vegetarian friendly, but that's not to say that there aren't vegetarian/vegan restaurants in the big cities and touristy areas (something to keep in mind if you're considering traveling there).
Not all restaurants will have English menus, as well. In general, it's very helpful to know the Spanish language when travelling in Spain, but don't be discouraged if you don't know any. You might even consider joining a tour group that will take care of the meal planning for you, or a food specific tour that will guide you to the best spots in the city.
Last point to share is that Spaniards eat much later during the day. You'll find plenty of literature about this on Google!
Now onto our very first meal:
*Note: hover over the images to learn more about the food
|Patatas bravas - not too spicy for this wimp, but it was spicier than expected|
|Ham (jamon) over tomatoes and soggy bread|
|Smoked salmon with a basket of toast|
|The menu stated "Carne Asada" - definitely different from the Latin American versions that I'm familiar with. It was perfectly cooked pork with a tomato sauce - all over a big piece of soggy bread.|
Restaurant: La Malaspina
Bottom line: Recommended, but be aware that the place gets crowded and you won't really find a hostess that will seat you - just walk into the back and grab a table, or grab a seat at the bar. It's a little tough to find the spot, and it'd be very helpful to know Spanish. Portions are extremely large - I think two dishes would have been plenty for the three of us.
Restaurant: Taberna La Fragua de Vulcano
Bottom Line: this was the best paella we ate - I'd HIGHLY recommend coming here. We stopped by to buy paella to go ("para llevar"), and the bar tender running the place was kind enough to bring out the entire pot of paella out (requires to strong men to carry, by the way) for us tourists to photograph - he has a great sense of humor, too. If you order paella from any place, be expected to wait 20-30 minutes. Not that I know what "authentic" paella is, but this was the least tomato-ey and the most flavorful (only downside is that it's pretty salty). He even threw in large hunks of bread on the side - free of charge, which isn't typical for many restaurants. Above all, two servings (which lasted us another meal) costed us 14 euros (7 euros per take out container). It'll be helpful to know Spanish.
|You can find Turkish sweets, pastries, nuts, and dried fruits everywhere - what a wonderful treat. We sampled baklava from a stand at Plaza Isabel II|
|Breakfast made from groceries we purchased from Dia% and dried fruits/nuts courtesy of an AA lounge|
|Hot chocolate and 2 churros - if you grab a tourist map from the official Madrid Tourism Board, you might find a coupon for two free churros with the purchase of a hot chocolate.|
Restaurant: Maestro Churrero
Bottom Line: It's a tourist must do, so I'd recommend it. Lines can be very long and it's also good to know Spanish. They have gluten-free churros available, too. I sipped my mom's hot chocolate and it definitely lives up to the stereotype of European hot chocolate - it's like liquid chocolate - super rich.
|Bocadillo Iberico - Iberian ham sandwich|
Restaurant: El Museo del Jamon
Bottom Line: A must-try for most tourists and a local favorite. You'll find plenty scattered throughout the city. A piece of meat sandwiched between bread doesn't seem very special, but it was good. Simple foods that are good indicates high quality ingredients, my friends.
|Apple Tatin (Tatin de Manzana)|
Restaurant: El Gran Via in El Corte Ingles (a gourmet food court on the top floor of a department store)
Bottom Line: Expensive bakery, but the tatin was good. I'd recommend coming to this food court in general, because you'll find plenty of options and food related souvenirs to bring home (specialty goods, Spanish food, European food, and extremely expensive, American crap that speaks volumes to how we subsidize food here)
|Los Calamares - calamari sandwich|
Restaurant: Perro Bar (also in El Corte Ingles)
Bottom Line: Highly recommend. It's expensive and unhealthy, but it was really good and worth every bite. The sauce sealed the deal.
|Second Chinese meal in Madrid (the first was even worse and not worth taking photos of)|
|La Casa Botin - the world's oldest restaurant, according to Guinness|
|Their specialty? Suckling pig. Vegans/vegetarians, stay away.|
|Pisto de Verduras - mixed vegetables|
|Bacalao - cod in tomato sauce|
|Cochinillo Asado - roasted suckling pig with potatoes|
This place is the 2nd best in Spain for suckling pig, and my dad loved it. I don't really like roasted pig/pork in general, so I wouldn't eat it again.
|Don't quite remember what this was, but it was a white fish with a savory sauce|
Restaurant: La Casa Botin
Bottom Line: I'd recommend it - you'll definitely need to make reservations and your meal will likely be very expensive (expect to pay for water and every piece of bread, too), but it's certainly a more affordable fine dining experience that's worthwhile. You can't forget about the history, either. English menus are available, but the waiters don't speak English.